Exploring the technologies that will power the metaverse
Defining the technologies of a phenomenon that doesn’t yet exist is a tricky business.
It means settling on a fairly broad definition of what the thing will be and then working backward.
The metaverse is a good example of this.
A lot of people have a nebulous idea of what the metaverse might be, and you’ll see many listicles of what it is and what it isn’t, depending on where they come at it. Some focus on the 3D modeling and the AR/VR aspects that will bring the immersive nature of the metaverse to life. Others focus on the openness and interoperability aspects, talking about how no one will own the metaverse and it will be hardware independent. Having a trawl through all the current wisdom and educated guesswork, and a lot of it is just that, what emerges is a little bit of all of these things.
The metaverse is an evolution of the internet. Therefore, it is a network of spaces or platforms on which different things happen with different levels of interactivity. Different technologies enable those characteristics and the metaverse will be no different.
What is at the core of metaverse technology?
However, there are some core technologies that most authoritative sources agree, so let’s look at those.
- 3D modeling
- Edge Computing
Detailing core metaverse technologies
Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality
AR/VR will be the key visualization technologies that most people will use to enjoy and interact with/in the metaverse. In our last look, we joined the guessing about what that might look like, and how it continues to evolve. It could be glasses, it could be projection, it could be a visor, it could be a helmet: irrespective of what form it takes, there would be some kind of immersive visualization that takes the user into the metaverse, not just putting it on a screen. These form factors will be lightweight, wireless, have a powered working time of three hours or more and start at affordable price points. Beyond that, it’s hard to predict what the tech will be. But metaverse technology companies such as Microsoft, Sony, Nvidia et al, are already showing new developments and supporting technologies for future development.
Artificial intelligence is going to be the key enabling metaverse technology that not only brings the various infrastructural elements together, but that allows the kind of interaction between human participants and integrated features that will differentiate the metaverse. From interpreting and anticipating, to coordinating and synchronizing, AI will be the nerves and the glue of the metaverse.
Visualization is going to be key to making the metaverse desirable, attractive, and inviting. That extends from the characters and avatars to the environments and the animations of how things happen.
Digital realty (the asset class not the company) is generally agreed as being a major feature of the metaverse. Owning an actual property that would be a permanent feature of the metaverse is already a very compelling prospect for many, not to mention the business of making, buying and selling them. That will only be possible with highly advanced 3D modeling, or in some cases remodeling. All those advanced AR/VR interface devices won’t be much good if the scenery is lacking. Already, 3D engine makers are gearing up to take their technology to the next level to meet their needs. From photorealistic to anime authentic. There will be varying styles and permutations depending on where you go in the metaverse, and what part you choose to engage with.
The wireless interface devices that people will access the metaverse through will need ultra-low latency and high bandwidth connections. That is another way of saying 5G. So whether it is a high-end AR/VR device or a local hub to a backhaul station, the metaverse will be bandwidth-hungry and will not wait for anything. A proliferation of 5G connectivity will be part of the major infrastructure necessary for a widely available metaverse experience.
Edge computing is already proving itself in places like medicine, research, and retail. Where there is a benefit to significant compute power close to where data is generated or analytics needed, edge computing (think mini data centers) delivers. For the metaverse, there will be large volumes of data moving about, even with refined protocols, in comparison to today’s services. Edge computing means that more can be done locally before reduce data sets are aggregated centrally for a deeper dive.
Allied to these last two points is the Internet of Things. IoT will enable sensors and interconnection of new devices that will combine to provide the metaverse experience. The combination of IoT, edge and 5G is already having powerful transformative effects in heavy industry, manufacturing and, again, retail. This proven base will support the development of new protocols and interfaces to bring more services together behind the metaverse.
Almost every prediction about the metaverse emphasizes the commercial aspects of the concept. Allied to this is the fact that, like the current internet, the metaverse will be like a series of bubble environments that move about as migratory workloads on infrastructure, where identity is managed inside and interoperable between various parties, protocols, and services. That is another way of saying blockchains. The distributed, open, and immutable features of blockchains will enable identity management, credentials management and the kind of decentralized models that are envisaged for commerce, finance and trading within the metaverse. Perhaps more than most other current technologies, blockchains will be a sort of permeating fabric throughout the metaverse, as much as any networking or synchronization tech.
To understand a little more of how the mentioned technologies, and many more that don’t yet exist, will come together, we can again look at the predictions or expectations of what the metaverse will be.
Last year, an investor and author in tech, Matthew Ball wrote that the metaverse is: “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that […] can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users, each with an individual sense of presence.”
That’s pretty good as a starting place. But adding to that are some key features that will drive the metaverse technology. According to Microsoft technology strategist Ben Thompson, key metaverse characteristics will be: persistence, synchronicity, and interoperability. As it stands, synchronicity for a completely interactive, persistent 3D environment that could be shared by millions concurrently doesn’t yet exist.
The Rules of the metaverse
Another key aspect of the metaverse is that there are already rules emerging for it. Much like the laws of robotics predating any actual robot, the rules of the metaverse set a zone in which people can work cooperatively and towards common goals.
According to Tony Parisi of Unity, the rules are axiomatic hypotheses, distilled from decades of experience and multiple practitioner insights; already generally embraced; and perhaps most importantly, not up for debate.
Rule #1. There is only one Metaverse.
Rule #2: The Metaverse is for everyone.
Rule #3: Nobody controls the Metaverse.
Rule #4: The Metaverse is open.
Rule #5: The Metaverse is hardware-independent.
Rule #6: The Metaverse is a Network.
Given the hegemony that many key early metaverse technology players already enjoy in their respective spheres, these rules might seem lofty, but they are nonetheless important as a starting point.
Metaverse technology: conclusions
It’s hard to see how the metaverse technology stack will play out at this stage. Apart from the fact that Bloomberg is reported as saying the global metaverse market would hit $800 billion in 2022, it is hard to say how efforts are going beyond the M&A market. The Facebook rebrand as Meta is telling, as is Microsoft’s Mesh initiative, and Nvidia’s Omniverse. The acquisition by Meta of Reality Labs for $10 billion is another key indicator. The money is there, the intent is there, and tech is developing rapidly, it may just be unevenly distributed.